Category Archives: Biology

Chaser – a dog of many words wins the ‘Dr Doolittle stamp of approval’

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This piece was guest-authored by Jess Upson who is studying Biology at Oxford Brookes University

Listen to my BBC radio chat with Malcolm. We discuss Chaser the Border collie and animal languages starting 50 seconds of ridiculous intro chat in this clip:

[audio http://www.brookes.ac.uk/lifesci/runions/DrMolecule/20130528%20-%20Animal%20languages%20and%20white%20tigers.mp3]

Do animals communicate more than we think?

Do animals communicate more than we think?

It has long been thought that we humans are ‘top-dog’ with regards to intelligence and communication, but it has recently been discovered that animals may not be as dim-witted as we sometimes give them credit for.

It turns out that if I call you ‘bird-brained’ this may not be so offensive…  Recent studies have shown that crows are one of the most intelligent animals on the planet, demonstrating extraordinary abilities of creative problem solving. These breakthroughs are beginning to shed light on how the brains of many animals work and, as much as we feel so superior, they work not unlike our own.

One of the best ways to understand the mind of an animal is observe how they behave with others of their kind. From a bee’s waggledance which tells others where the best flowers are, to the pops and whistles of dolphins whilst playing, there are a variety of mechanisms used by animals for communication. Perhaps one of the most exciting ideas is the idea that animals having a language of their own.

Studies now demonstrate that animals may communicate in what could be considered a language. A mother and infant dolphin talked over the telephone when placed in different enclosures. Elephants have also been known to demonstrate a sophisticated way of communicating, with each individual producing a unique noise, often in the sub-sonic range that humans can’t hear, and it can travel for miles. The matriarchal female can recognize hundreds of calls from elephants she knows and from huge distances away – that is the equivalent of being able to stand blindfolded in the middle of 1000’s of screaming people – like outside of One Direction’s hotel – and still being able to distinguish the ones you know!

I'll tell you a secret if you promise not to tell anyone else...

I’ll tell you a secret if you promise not to tell anyone else…

But it is not just the larger mammals that can demonstrate this. Work carried out on prairie dogs has shown their ability to produce effective warning calls, with all the details included. It was discovered that each predator had a unique call associated with it, including humans. The call could tell other individuals what the threat was as well as information like its colour and size. When a new object was placed within sight of different groups of prairie dogs, each came up with the same new warning call, showing that there may be something within their culture, a language perhaps, which allows them to convey this sort of information.

Chaser the Border collie sitting with some of her 1000+ toys

Chaser the Border collie sitting with some of her 1000+ toys

So,it is not just humans who have shown the ability to understand different forms of communication. Famously, Panzee the chimpanzee can distinguish more than 130 human words. But it looks like there is a new champion at understanding human-speak, Chaser the Border collie.Tell your dog a simple command and it may respond, but no dog has yet quite matched the ability of Chaser when it comes to understanding our language. Chaser knows the name of every single one of her toys – all 1022 of them! She also understands verbs and conjugate sentences. That’s better than I can do some mornings…

Chaser goes beyond remembering words. She can correctly respond to phrases with three parts (a noun, a verb, and another noun) 75% of the time. This sort of ability is learnt at about the age of three in humans.

It is a baffling question that if we are so ‘intelligent’, why can’t we understand animals when many appear to be able to understand us? But the mechanisms used by different animals to relay information are vast and often very complex. A dolphin clapping its fins could mean multiple things depending on the situation. For example, if you put a hand in the air it could mean you were greeting someone, or waving goodbye, or even indicating the number five, all depending on the situation.

Many animal species have vocal cords that are used for making sounds. During evolution of human speech, we have developed the ability to modulate those sounds using out tongues, lips and larynx. Many scholars are actively engaged in trying to determine how and when in our evolutionary history we developed this extrorinary ability that sets us apart from other animals, including those like the great apes who possess vocal cords.

Talk to the animals

Talk to the animals

Some still argue that the idea of species other than humans communicating through a language is far-fetched. But we are only just beginning to understand the subtlties and intricacies of animal communications. So is animal language really as fictional as Dr Doolittle’s Pushmi-pullyu?

Can animals evolve to survive climate change?

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Many who might be skeptical that climate change is a problem that results from Human activities will say, as a last refrain:

“Oh, anyway… animals can just evolve to survive rising temperature.”

But is this true?

funny-hot-dog-melting-picsCharled Darwin had a dreadful time trying to convince his Victorian peers that evolution by natural selection was a real process in nature. This is because he could not demonstrate unequivocally that is was happening. And the reason that he could not demonstrate that it was happening is that it happens slowly.

I mean, part of the process of evolution results when organisms adapt to new and changing environments. This adaptation takes place over hundreds or thousands of generations. The snow leopard will not just simply decide that it’s too warm and shed its fur so that all is hunky-dory.

Thinking about Human generation times – arguably 20 years – hundreds of generations means that it takes 5000-10000 years to notice even very small changes that result from mutation of genes that might confer an evolutionary advantage in a given situation. Most organisms have shorter generation times but even the smallest adaptations gotten through evolution will realistically take 1000s of years.

I saw a calculation recently that showed that animals can ‘evolve’ at a rate that would make them able to adapt to temperature change of 1 degree celsius per million years. Present calculations show that our average temperature on earth will likely rise by 4 degrees celsius by the end of this century. Evolution needs to work, uh, let’s see… (4 degrees in 87 years = 1 degree in 21.75 years, and 1,000,000 / 21.75 = 45977), 46,000 times faster than it does now. That isn’t going to happen.

The funny thing is that an average temperature rise of 4 degrees doesn’t seem like that much to us. It will have devestating consequences for our planet, however. Ice sheets will melt and the water cycle will be thrown completely out of kilter with consequences like worsening weather, flooding, and drought like we are starting to experience now.

familyAnimals and plants that have evolved to survive in their special environment (and that’s generally what evolution has done) might survive the onslaught of climate change for a while by moving to adjacent environments where it is (choose one – wetter / drier / warmer / colder) but that is a short-term fix.Plants and animals that are adapted to survive in desert environments are separated by hundreds of millions of years of evolution from those that are adapted to survive in very wet conditions.

Our snow leopard really won’t find the prey items that it needs to survive if its habitat warms, and it can’t simply pick up and find a new home like the Bevely Hillbillies did (Kin folks said, Jed, move away from there…)

Forests using less water because of climate change

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This article was originally published in Conversation logoThe Conversation

and in Ars Technicaars-technica-logo

Forests using less water because of climate change – a good thing?

Global warming is primarily driven by increasing emissions of greenhouse gases from human activities. Chief among these gases is carbon dioxide (CO2), which warms the planet by trapping heat that would otherwise radiate into space.

9kvm83bg-1374505630But carbon dioxide has effects on things other than the climate. In the journal Nature, Trevor Keenan of Macquarie University and his colleagues report that trees in some forests are using less water to maintain growth than they did only 20 years ago. This puzzling finding has been attributed to the increased levels of CO2, which trees utilise as their carbon source.

Instruments placed in various US forests have been measuring CO2 and water concentrations in the air for many years. These measurements have been correlated with the amount of CO2 locked up by trees over the same period to show that forests have become more efficient at storing carbon. What is more important is that the measurements suggest that the increase in efficiency of storing carbon is six times greater than would be expected if it was just proportional to the increase in atmospheric CO2 concentration during the same period.

Increased CO2 availability means that trees have to restrict the opening of their breathing pores (stomata) so that CO2 levels inside their leaves remain constant. But this has additional consequences for the trees. Smaller pores means less water evaporates from their leaf surfaces through these stomatal openings. This effect has been called the “CO2 fertilisation effect”, which means plants can utilise more CO2 to make more carbohydrates, like cellulose and sugars, while using smaller volumes of water overall than previously required.

The fine balance between CO2 uptake and water loss is critical for plant survival. Early predictions by climate scientists were that increasing temperatures would devastate forests. That is because elevated temperatures increase the rate of evaporation and transpiration at leaf surfaces, potentially causing trees to suffer from “water-stress”. Instead, this paper suggests that increased efficiency of water-use by forests might mean that water does not become a limiting factor in productivity as temperatures rise.

This new finding seems like unadulterated good news, therefore, until you factor in the effect that water usage by forests has on components of the ecosystem. Trees move an incredible volume of water from the ground into the atmosphere. That water then forms rain, which helps the connected ecosystem thrive. Large forested areas play a very important role in the water balance and ecology of most agricultural land on Earth.

Keenan and his colleagues examined 21 forest sites going back as much as 20 years, with their data limited to the temperate and boreal forests of the Northern Hemisphere. Although this is still a relatively small sample size, this work will probably result in a flurry of research activity to establish what will happen to plant primary productivity in other areas in response to elevated CO2. Keenan said: “We’ve examined the trend upside down and inside out as much as we can, and it is wholly robust.”

Climate scientists use data from studies such as this one to build long-term computer simulations that help them examine potential effects of alterations in variables like temperature, ocean currents and rainfall. Decreased volumes of water being moved by transpiration into the atmosphere will now be added as an input in these simulations in an attempt to predict what the medium and long-term effects of the new observations might be.

On the one hand, more consumption of CO2 by forests will help stem global warming. But on the other hand, less water circulated through more efficient use by trees will mean that non-forest ecosystems may get into trouble.

Tweaking plant biology to solve the food crisis

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This article was originally published at The ConversaConversation logotion.

Hacking plant ‘blood vessels’ could avert food crisis

Today’s wars are not about food, but not too far in the future they could be. The number of people dying of starvation has been falling for decades, but the decline in the numbers of hungry people is slowing down. More than 800 million people remain undernourished. With nine billion mouths to feed by 2050, the task of feeding us all is only going to get harder.

There is a solution, though, according to a recent paper in the journal Nature written by some of the world’s leading plant biologists. They show that, by hacking how  plants transport key nutrients into plant cells, we could solve the impending food crisis.

Each plant is made of billions of cells. All these cells are surrounded by membranes. The pores in these membranes are lined with special chemicals called membrane transporters. They do the job of ferrying nutrients that plants capture from soils with the help of roots.

What scientists have learnt is that if such membrane transporters are tweaked, they can enhance plant productivity. When these tweaks are applied to crops, they can produce plants that are high in calories, rich in certain nutrients or fight pests better. All these methods increase food production while using fewer resources.

Currently, world agriculture faces the problem of shrinking arable land, which is the area that is fit for food production. This is why the world’s leading plant biologists argue in the Nature paper that we must embrace genetically modified (GM) plants, many of which have better membrane transporters making them more productive without increasing land use.

Good modification

ngtpvbfh-1368974463Over two billion people suffer from iron or zinc deficiency in their diets. Biofortification involves increasing concentration of such essential minerals. Simple genetic modification increases the amount of membrane transporters that ferry these minerals. Such plants when ready for harvest can have as much as four times the concentration of iron, compared to that of common crop variety.

A little known fact (pdf) is that making fertilisers consumes about 2% of world’s energy. This makes the process a significant contributor to emission of greenhouse gases. Modifying membrane transporters can help cut those emissions, because it can make a plant more effective at using plant fertilisers.

For instance, only 20-30% of phosphorus added to soil as fertilisers is used by crop plants. Tweaking transporters such as PHT1  can increase the uptake of phosphorus. Similar results can be obtained when NRT genes are modified, which increase uptake of nitrogen from fertilisers.

Better resistance

About a third of the Earth’s ice-free land is acidic. The problem is that in highly acidic conditions aluminium in soil exists in a form that is toxic to plants. Such land cannot be used to grow food, but if crops were able to counteract the effects of acidity on growth that land would become available.

Scientists have found some varieties of wheat that have a trick to enable them to grow in acidic conditions. One of its membrane transporter called ALMT1 pumps out malate anion from its roots into the soil which traps the toxic form of aluminium.

Varieties of wheat without this natural transporter can be improved by breeding with varieties that do. But, crops such as barley, which have no comparable system of transporter in its membrane, need to be genetically modified to express the ALMT1 transporter protein. This allows for greatly increased yields even in acidic soils.

When salt is bad

Much of the world’s arable lands are becoming salty as a result of current irrigation practices. This happens when, on evaporation, salts in irrigation water are left behind inthe soil. Salts are toxic to plants and are severely limiting yields in over 30% of irrigated crops.

But there are membrane transporters which can stem the flow of salts into plants. These transporters, from the HKT family, rid the water of sodium before it is taken up by the plants. One example is that of durham wheat, which was modified to possess the HKT5 gene. The modification helped increase its yield in salty soils by 25%.

Fighting from the inside

gmbp69dh-1369048466Disease-causing micro-organisms, pathogens, manipulate a plant’s functioning and consume the fruit of its labour. Most crops have membrane transporters called SWEETs that move sucrose made by leaves from photosynthesis to other regions where it may be stored. Plant pathogens have evolved to manipulate SWEET genes so that sugars are moved to cells where they can feed on the goods.

Now scientists have found a way of disrupting this pathogen-induced manipulation by a method called RNA-silencing. These reduce, or sometimes eliminate, the pathogens’ ability to feed on the plants’ hard work, and in turn they help increase plant productivity.

Not all bad

Researchers have been quietly chugging away in labs working on making such radical improvements to crops. Breeding of plants, a form of untailored genetic modification that bestowed most of the benefits to agriculture a generation ago, is not able to keep up with the pace of change required for an ever-increasing demand for food. That is why it is important that we understand the science behind the process of tinkering with specific genes, before jumping on the “GM is bad” wagon.

Scientists are aware of the moral, ethical and environmental discussions surrounding production of GM food, and have been working carefully to address those issues. It is important that they continue to do so, while exploring the full potential of GM research to tackle the issue of hunger that looms large over the future of our species.

Girls’ world record attempt to measure gravity

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Malcolm and I discuss the giant physics experiment starting at 7 minutes and 37 seconds in this clip.

[audio http://www.brookes.ac.uk/lifesci/runions/DrMolecule/20121113 – Science in UK and GSDT giant physics experiment.mp3]

At 11:30 this morning, more than 2,300 schoolgirls between the ages of 10-15 attempted to set a new world record. They set out to measure the force of gravity… The good thing about this attempt at classical physics experiments was that it was going on simultaneousley in 26 different academy schools of the Girls’ Day School Trust in the UK. If successful, the girls will have set the record for the largest (most participants), multi-location physics lesson/experiment ever conducted.

A couple of things that I would like to address:

i) How does one measure the force of gravity?

ii) Why is it significant that the Girls’ Day School Trust is carrying out this experiment?

(I’ll finish this blogpost later but wanted to get the clip up so that the GDST students could listen if they want)

#organellewars – a fun school project in cell biology

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Malcolm and I discuss #organellewars starting at 6 minutes and 15 seconds in this clip.

[audio http://www.brookes.ac.uk/lifesci/runions/DrMolecule/20121023 – Star Trek tech and organellewars.mp3]

Lysosomes for the win

I don’t need write very much more about #organellewars because my colleague Dr. Anne Osterrieder has explained it on her blog at theplantcell.com. Anne describes this innovative approach to teaching as ‘The organelle presidential campaign 2012‘.

Mighty Mitochondria

Briefly, high-school science teacher Brad Graba, who teaches AP Biology at William Fremd High School in Palatine, IL., has conceived a biology learning project that involves social media in an innovative way. His instructions to his students (#organellewars – Cell Organelle Campaign) are straightforward. Each group is to assume the identity of a cellular organelle (nucleus, mitochondrian, chloroplast, whathaveyou…), and to wage a campaign about that organelle. The campaign is intended to teach about that organelle and here’s the fun part. Among tasks that the students are expected to carry out is a mudslinging smear campaign against the other organelles! This aspect of the project has been largely carried out on twitter and I am absolutely amazed by the sheer volume of tweets that this has generated (See some of these storified).

Go Go Golgi

Not only has the twitter-based discussion and mudslinging fest been popular with the Grade 10 students, but scientists worldwide have jumped into the fray. Go onto twitter and search #organellewars for just a small fraction of the tweets that make up this campaign.

Whether the kids realize it or not, to smear another organelle, you’ve got to know what you’re talking about. In other words, they are learning about cells and organelles and having a lot of fun while doing so.

What’s my favorite organelle today… let me see, perhaps the pre-vacuolar compartment or the early endosome…

What’s yours? I’ll write later to let you know the final outcome of the campaign.

Your DNA doesn’t contain as much junk as your teacher says it does!

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New scientific evidence, released this week as the ENCODE project, tells us that our DNA has a lot more information in it than we had previously expected

Listen to my BBC radio chat with Malcolm. We discuss the ENCODE project starting at 47 seconds into this clip:

[audio http://www.brookes.ac.uk/lifesci/runions/DrMolecule/20120911 – ENCODE and a gene for trotting.mp3]

Follow this link for a good GuestBlogged essay on the information contained in DNA.

Whales committing suicide en masse… why?

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On a recent weekend, whales stranded themselves on 4 different beaches around the world. Why do they do this?

Listen to my BBC radio chat with Malcolm (actually, with Nick Piercey this time. We discuss whale strandings starting at 25 seconds into this clip:

[audio http://www.brookes.ac.uk/lifesci/runions/DrMolecule/20120904 – Beached whales and tree diseases.mp3]

Whales and dolphins stranded on a beach

Stories about animals committing mass suicide are just not true – whether the animals in question be lemmings or whales. On of the central tenets of evolutionary biology is that the gene is selfish. Mass suicide is not a biological imperative – animals seek to reproduce and raise their young in all cases. While it is true that evolutionary theory talks of a ‘struggle for survival’ and ‘survival of the fittest’, there is no indication that whales that strand themselves are at less than peak fitness. So, although the reasons for whale strandings are unclear, the thing that you can be sure of is that whales are not ‘committing suicide.’

An engraving depicting three beached sperm whales that dates from 1577

Why then do these terrible tragedies occur? It is easy to point the finger and say that man is to blame. That might be partially true, and I will explain why in a bit, but there have been documented whale strandings since well before we filled the ocean with human technology that might confuse whales.

What is usually true is that it is the ‘toothed’ whales like pilot and sperm whales that beach themselves. These are the whales who hunt and eat meat like fish and seals. Larger whales such as Blue whales who filter zooplankton (the baleen whales) much less commonly beach themselves. The suggestion here is that it is the act of hunting in packs for animals that shelter in shallower waters that contributes to whale strandings. I hear you say, ‘But whales aren’t stupid!.’  Far from it, I think I made the point already that they wouldn’t have survived this long if something as common as a bit of shallow water was going to confuse them so much that they died.

Humans rescuing beached whales

My contention is that shallow waters have probably resulted in confused and stranded whales throughout evolutionary history but that it is exactly this that should have selected for whales that are exquisitely able to survive in these environments. Orcas have been observed to beach themselves as a hunting strategy. They catch seals on the beach and wait for the next wave to re-float them. This is a learned / evolved behaviour that not all whale species have acquired. Evolution is a slow process – especially for large, long-lived organisms that take years to produce successive generations. That’s why deer haven’t ‘evolved’ the ability to avoid cars. No predators with which they have evolved move as fast as a car, and cars have only been around for a few decades. I can imagine that if we kept driving cars at deer for many thousands of years that the ability to avoid them would evolve in deer.

OK, so whales have evolved to survive in shallow water environments and should be able to avoid being beached. It still happens – and it happens much more commonly on some beaches than on others. Scientists postulate that when pods of hunting whales stray into unfamiliar territory, they can become confused. This confusion is most prevalent in areas where the angle between beach and sea bottom is very shallow – it does not, therefore, reflect the sound that whales make as a navigation aid back to them and they remain unaware that they are dangerously close to the beach. This situation combined with strong current or tides is why whales end up high on beaches.

A Long-finned Pilot whale being rescued by crane

Whale rescue agencies have been set up around the world and are staffed, generally by volunteers, so that they can be mobilized quickly when whales beach or, even better, when a pod of whales gets close to a stranding site. Whales have not evolved to support their own weight for very long (I even find it a bit uncomfortable when I lay on the couch for more than a few hours watching TV!) and they quickly become very ill when beached. Even when rescued, they commonly remain confused and often re-beach themselves.

I mentioned at the top that human human activity might play a role in the increasing number of whale strandings that are being observed. In early September this year (2012), pilot whales beached themselves at 4 different locations around the world. That just seems like too much of a coincidence. One factor that seems to cause a great deal of confusion in whales is noise. And man do we fill the oceans with noise. Not only the din caused by ships engines but, increasingly, SONAR from military exercises. These sounds can be louder (240 decibels) than any sounds on land including jet engines and rock concerts. Think about whales who have evolved to navigate using sound – hear for yourselves the plaintive whale sounds that some species can detect from hundreds of miles away. The incidence of whales beaching increases after military exercises involving SONAR, and scientists have observed that many of the whales involved in these beachings have acoustically-induced hemorrhages around the ears.

We must consider the natural environment of these animals before we deploy things like load SONAR for military purposes – is it worth it?

A breaching humpback whale

While I’m on the topic of what we do to the whales environment, watch this amazing video of a humpback whale being rescued from a fishing net. I just about didn’t watch it because I was concentrating on whale strandings when I found it. It leaves me with mixed emotions. On the one hand, the majesty of the animal and it’s apparent cooperation with the humans. On the other, what if they hadn’t encountered the whale. It would just be a statistic on its way to extinction.

Human evolution… our ancestors weren’t fighting dinosaurs!

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It makes for good TV though…

Listen to my BBC radio chat with Malcolm. We discuss our Human ancestors after 2 minutes of ridiculous intro chat in this clip:

[audio http://www.brookes.ac.uk/lifesci/runions/DrMolecule/20120814 – Human evolution and Florence Nightingale.mp3]

A happy looking chap – of an entirely different species

I grew up watching televised accounts of our ‘cavemen’ ancestors battling giant man-eating dinosaurs. In fact, those battles didn’t happen – not even close. Dinosaurs went extinct 65 million years ago and our ancestors have evolved to walk on two legs and look something like us only in the last 2-3 million years. The very earliest primates started to evolve from early mammals 85 million years ago and would have overlapped with the dinosaurs somewhat.

We all – excepting Simon Schama – experience this sort of historical time dilation when thinking about things that happened before we were born. At its extreme, the child who asks, ‘Mommy, when you were little did you see dinosaurs’ to the usual adult confusion about what century events happened in. Modern humans of our species, Homo sapiens, have only been around for the last 400,000 years, and have only started to behave modernly during the last 50,000 years. It is during that period that we see the rise of symbolic culture and language.

Charles Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace shocked Victorian sensibilities

That’s me on the lef…uhh, the right.

when they proposed that Humans had evolved from apes. The very idea was lampooned in ‘the ascent of Man’ images of the sort that are now known to depict one of the most brilliant and impactful scientific ideas ever. Evolution is a fact. I proceeds so slowly, however, that it is difficult to observe in action. The giraffe that might benefit from having a longer neck doesn’t just grow a longer neck. Over hundreds or thousands of generations, giraffes that have slightly longer necks are slightly more successful at foraging in trees than their slightly-shorter-necked contemporaries. These more successful foraging giraffes are likely more fit and are better able to pass their genes into the next generation. By a series of very small increments, giraffe offspring in subsequent generations will have slightly longer necks. That process continues until the longer necks are no longer an advantage, i.e. until they become too heavy or breathing becomes difficult. Evolution is a slow process which results in ‘fitter’ organisms but it regulates against ‘runaway’ selection – it is just physically impossible for a giraffe to have a neck any longer than they now are – the animal would become ‘unfit’ in many other respects.

Back to Human evolution. It really isn’t as simplistic as the idea illustrated that a chimpanzee turned into a caveman etc. After all, chimpanzees still exit. Why? The answer is that in the deep dark past – millions of years ago – we shared a common ancestor that resembled a small primate. Some offspring of the ancestor began to evolve towards Human form while others evolved towards modern chimpanzee form. Evolution is a branching process and one of the biggest drivers of branching is when offspring find themselves in different environments where different characteristics will help them survive and reproduce better. What was the original main distinction between the Human branch and the chimpanzee branch? Answer – the ability to walk upright in our branch (or to walk on a branch in the chimp’s case, get it?). The Human branch moved onto the savannah where individuals who could stand or walk upright had a definite surveillance and hunting advantage just by being able to see further. The chimp branch remained in the forest where climbing ability and smaller stature were an advantage (have you ever seen a chimp climb – holy baloney?). Gradually and over thousands of generations, animals in each branch evolved to more closely resemble either modern Humans or chimpanzees.

Branches in Human evolution – about a million question marks still remain

So, let’s consider the Human branch. Why did it stop branching along the way? That’s a trick question. The answer is that it didn’t stop branching. As Human ancestors spread out of Africa into Asia and Europe, populations became isolated. Remember, we’re talking about migrations that take generations – you didn’t just jump on Air Africa and fly to London in those days. Isolated populations gradually differentiate – as you well know if you’ve ever sat in a pub with a Scotsman, an Irishman, a Welshwoman, and an Englishwoman. Language is one of the first things to start changing and differences are obvious over very fine geographical scales. Physical attributes take longer to evolve but they do and they have resulted in many branches of the original one that lead to modern Humans. Look at an enlarged view of the image to the left – we (Homo sapiens) are only one of several different species which have existed and even co-existed during the last 2 million years. Most recently, we shared Europe with Homo Neanderthalis – and I mean in relatively modern times, until about 30,000 years ago.

So what ever became of the Neanderthals? Well, they went extinct. This often happens when closely related species try to co-exist. Perhaps

Clap for the ape-man

we could have continued to co-exist but similar species usually require what is called a ‘niche’, that is, they need to have their own environment, or food source, or method of survival. Remember that Humans and chimpanzees can co-exist because they get the trees and we get everything else. If the chimpanzees tried to use our resources, a Planet-of-the-Apes situation might ensue. More likely, however, is that they would go the way of the Neaderthals and not be heard from again. Hey, we’re not even very tolerant with members of our own species who try to take our land from us.

A debate continues about just how close our species and the Neanderthals really were. We still harbour a good deal of Neanderthal DNA and scientists are trying to work out whether that’s because, as some think likely, the species interbred where their ranges overlapped (in Paris after a romantic night out on the left bank, for example), or whether that’s just leftover DNA from our common ancestor back at the ranch point.

In any case, ‘no Sweetheart, Mommy didn’t see dinosaurs when she was little.’ She was closer to meeting Human-relatives of a completely different species but even that’s probably pushing it a bit.  How old do you think Mommy is, anyway!?

Keeping an eye on the cuckoo

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You can migrate but you can’t hide…

Listen to my BBC radio chat with Malcolm. We discuss tracking cuckoos at  at 7 minute 36 seconds in this clip:

[audio http://www.brookes.ac.uk/lifesci/runions/DrMolecule/20120807 – Mars Curiosity and cuckoos.mp3]

A cuckoo with stylish tracking device

So we all know that birds we see in the summer fly south for the winter. I often think jealously of the birds laughing it up in sunnier climes while we suffer the cold and wet of winter. The journey that birds embark upon is epic and preprogrammed as an instinctive response to the onset of cold.

We’ve heard the stories of the thousands of miles that birds fly each year but the trip is really brought home to us when we can see the exact route that a bird takes.  Until now, we know that certain species are here in the summer and we also know that the same birds appear in the distant south during the winter. Data to support these observations has come anecdotally from travellers who recognize our native summer species. For almost 100 years, researchers have been banding birds with rings that are inobtrusive and which contain location data. We marvel that birds tagged in England appear in southern Africa, or that the same birds appear year after year in the same summer locations. How do they pathfind on their journeys? Do they have some inbuilt SatNav that lets them accomplish amazing feats of orienteering?

The Common Cuckoo of Europe (bird, not clock) is renowned for the distance of its migration

Follow cuckoos every step, uh… flap along the way

which sees it travelling from Northern Europe to Southern Africa every year. For some in the UK,  hearing the call of the Common Cuckoo is regarded as the first harbinger of spring. The problem is that the bird is becoming very endangered and scarce. Scientists are puzzled as to exactly why the species is in decline and now, in collaboration with the British Trust for Ornithology  (BTO – but not Bachman Turner Overdrive takin’ care of business…), have decided to do something about it.

If the question is, ‘are the birds just not managing the migration successfully,’ the answer might be to track their whereabouts at all times. Modern electronics technology has been able to produce satellite transmitters that are so small that they can be fitted in a non-invasive way to a cuckoo. If you click on the image above, you will see the travels of a set of male cuckoos that the BTO have been tracking since departing Britain. You will see that the birds take very different routes, sometimes flying vast distances over water or the Sahara desert.

Miniature tracking technology is fairly accurate on a global scale but is not yet as accurate as the GPS systems in common use in our cars and phones. Those devices would still be to heavy for the birds to carry. The newest of these Platform Transmitter Terminals use solar panels to recharge the batteries – this means that after 10 hours of tracking, the transmitter must be shut down to recharge for 48 hours (I wish we got that after working for 10 hours!). In the age of Big Brother on television, many have come to expect instant gratification from our voyeur systems. The 48 hour shut down is going to be the undoing of many passionate birders who stay glued to their computers to see how the birds are making out. For example, exactly as I am writing this, one of the birds whose name is Lyster seems to be taking a break in a desert are of Mauritania. But no, he is moving. Is he getting food somehow in this relatively barren part of the world? Is he just all shagged out after a particularly long squawk? We’ll just have to stay tuned.

You can sponsor a bird and your donations will help the BTO keep this amazing experiment running so that we can finally figure out why our cuckoo is declining.